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In conversation with the MIRROR exhibition curators

(L-R)Curators Linda Short, Jade Hadfield and Kate Rhodes standing together in the MIRROR exhibition space at State Library Victoria. They are facing the camera, with two projection screens visible in the background.
15 August 2023

State Library Victoria's latest exhibition MIRROR: New views on photography showcases over 140 photographs from the State Collection, alongside creative responses from emerging and established Victorian storytellers, to tell fascinating tales of Victoria through a contemporary lens. 

The immersive exhibition was brought together by Library curators Linda Short, Jade Hadfield and Kate Rhodes (featured left to right, above).

In this interview, Kate and Linda share a behind-the-scenes perspective of how the exhibition came to be and the best way for visitors to experience it.

Hi Linda and Kate! Firstly, can you give us a quick explanation of what Mirror is?

Mirror is an exhibition of 141 postwar photographs from the State Library Victoria’s huge collection. We selected the images with the theme of ‘mirror’ in mind, and then shared this collection with storytellers from Victoria – 2 collectives and 5 individuals – who created work in response to the images. Alice Skye has arranged lyrics; Leah Jing Mcintosh has composed a short essay; Jason Tamiru has performed an audiovisual journey; Pasifika Storytellers Collective has made songs, films, short texts, spoken word and prints; Prithvi Varatharajan has written poems; Superfluity has created a radio show; and Walter Kadiki has performed an Auslan poem.

The storytellers worked with filmmaker Antuong Nguyen and graphic designer Ziga Testen to create the short films you see in the exhibition, evocatively designed by local architecture studio Baracco & Wright. We chose to work with digital images of the photographs rather than the actual photographic material. It meant we could easily share the images with the storytellers and weave their chosen images and responses into films. The films are projected at a large scale in the Library’s vast Victoria Gallery – sound and imagery surrounds you in a way that feels very cinematic.

What was the process like when it came to selecting the images from the Pictures Collection?

There are 3 of us curating this exhibition – Jade Hadfield, Kate Rhodes and Linda Short – and we each brought our different experiences to the image selection. We settled on ‘mirror’ to ‘harvest’ our selection because it is such a productive and seductive term. Firstly, it describes so much about our experience of Melbourne’s lockdown: looking at ourselves on video calls, when we developed the show. Its many synonyms – echo, follow, imitate, copy, reflection, twin – were also jumping off points.

Mirror is relevant in the broader picture: its ever-tangled relationship with photography as a ‘mirror to the world’ and the idea of the Library Collection itself as a mirror to society. In terms of the latter, this is a deeply complex sense of reflection as not all Victorians will see themselves in the collection and we wanted to address and begin to redress that too. We each made selections using the Library catalogue and then shared our different ideas and responses to the theme. We thought about how the images would act as prompts for the storytellers and how each image also held stories in and of themselves.

How did you approach the respondents and match them with the pictures they wanted to work with?

We thought carefully about the group of storytellers who we hoped to work with. It was important that we invited a range of perspectives and also storytelling styles so in the show you see poets, essayists, theatre makers, songwriters, activities, radio hosts, artists, performers. You also see a range of languages – First Nations, Pacific, Auslan and English. Text in the exhibition is written, spoken, transcribed, translated, performed and choreographed. The Library is also home to many languages so it’s important the exhibition is too.

The 141 photographs were shared with the storytellers and they were invited to select one or all of the images for their responses, depending on what spoke to them. The results are inspiring, moving and sometimes very funny, but all reveal that the associations that each of us make with works in the collection are valid.

Finally, what’s the best way for visitors to experience the exhibition?

One experience will be to come into the Library. There’s an 80-minute program of 14 films made in response to the collection that play in a loop in the middle of the exhibition space. And there’s also a 30-minute loop of the 141 photographs presented alongside new images of how we store and care for those photographs by Annika Kafcaloudis. This shorter loop is displayed within spaces we call ‘the cinemas’.

Each of the film works in the central space is Auslan translated by a creative interpreter from the Deaf community and there are accessible image captions for the works on display in the cinemas.

Another way, if visitors can’t visit us in person, is to have a look at our page on the Library website – there’s information about the storytellers and access to the 141 photographs in the show. There’s also a pdf version of the free exhibition publication that’s available in the gallery space.

In September we’ll be running a workshop for teachers to teach their students about Mirror and how to stage a version of the show in their schools. Our colleague Georgia Goud has developed an education kit with lots of information about how the show was created so that anyone can make a version of the exhibition using the Library’s catalogue. Visitors might want to experience the show and then make their own.

In this exhibition the collection is a leaping-off point for us to invite the community into the Library to show us how they can use it.

Visit Mirror

Image: (L-R) Linda Short, Jade Hadfield and Kate Rhodes. Credit: SDP Photography.